A council’s plans to bar under-18s from films with smoking sets us on a dangerous path, says Gerald Warner.
Send for the Sanity Inspector – quickly. There is work for him among the denizens of Liverpool city council. The council is proposing to use its powers to upgrade to an 18-certificate the classification of films “if they depict images of cigarettes online buy“, in order to protect the vulnerable youth of Merseyside from exposure to such depravity.
Needless to say, the council is not embarking on this pioneering exercise without much conscientious preparation. A consultation exercise has been launched, with separate questionnaires for “stakeholder” organisations, community groups and businesses, members of the public aged 18 and above, and for under-age respondents. The clever money is on the nine-year-olds’ being the most rational, coherent and jargon-free documents to have been seen in the council for many years.
Despite this elaborate exercise in democracy, which one can safely predict will be interpreted as endorsing the council’s proposals, the question has to be asked: have the city fathers really thought through the implications of such a policy? As regards new releases, will Hollywood directors draw a blue pencil through every smoking scene out of dread it may be forbidden to under-18s in Liverpool? Is there not just a smidgin of megalomania about such a supposition?
As for existing films, if this policy caught on across the country, it would mean the demise of 101 Dalmatians, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio and Peter Pan, unless there is a larger adult audience for those classics than is generally supposed. There is no point in objecting that Cruella de Vil, with her signature cigarette in a long holder, is a baddie: villainy is “cool” and therefore appealing.
Liverpool schoolboys may have watched their last classic James Bond film in a public theatre: the producers of Licence to Kill allegedly took a $350,000 payment to ensure 007 smoked Lark cigarettes. (In Tomorrow Never Dies, Pierce Brosnan denounced smoking as “a filthy habit”, but appeared in Lark commercials in Japan.) Farewell, Superman II, with Lois Lane chain-smoking Marlboros. As for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Muppet Movie – they, too, would go up in smoke.
Then there are the older classics. Bogart? Mostly glimpsed through a fog of cigarette smoke, so a candidate for airbrushing out of cinematic history. Bette Davis? Ditto. Audrey Hepburn’s outsize cigarette-holder in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Tantamount to pornography.
It should not be supposed, however, that such a wise body as Liverpool city council is impervious to certain objections. For example, portrayals of historical characters who smoked would be exempted. Churchill could still be shown with his trademark cigar – although if The Eagle Has Landed features an anonymous private soldier with cigarette hanging from lower lip, things might get a bit dicey.
Accepting the axiom that what Liverpool city council proposes today, the world implements tomorrow, we must come to terms with the prospect that this is just the beginning of a new age in cinema. For political correctness is never a static force; it seeks always to break new ground. Assuming young cinema-goers are successfully kept from exposure to smoking, the next logical step would be to extend this protection to over-18s as well.
Tentative moves have already been made towards a more broad-based censorship. In Paris, the cigarette was removed from a picture of Jean-Paul Sartre on a poster from an exhibition. Sartre, when asked what was the most important thing in his life, replied: “I don’t know. Everything. Living. Smoking.” Posthumously, he has managed to give up the latter. In a more directly Liverpudlian context, Paul McCartney’s cigarette was excised on US posters of the cover of Abbey Road.
The really exciting thing about such initiatives is that they represent the first, cautious moves towards rewriting history – towards creating an alternative past that is more palatable to the promoters of political correctness To some extent, things are already moving that way, for example when we hear a powdered 18th-century aristocrat in a television period drama referring to “the under-privileged”. Such anachronisms are attributable to the increasing historical illiteracy of scriptwriters; but why not harness ignorance to progress?
With everybody under the age of 30 ignorant of all events predating their own lifetimes, thanks to the near-elimination of history from state schools under New Labour (“Hey, look – I mean – come on – this is a young country”), the opportunity presents itself for progressive forces to recalibrate the past. William the Conqueror could be portrayed as a pioneer of mass immigration, and therefore a heroic moderniser. Most importantly, a revisionist scenario could replace Hitler in historical demonology with Sir Walter Raleigh, who first imported the demon tobacco into this country.
Who said enterprise and innovation are dead? To refute that canard, one need look no further than Liverpool city council, whose members have refused to be restricted to such pedestrian responsibilities as emptying dustbins and mending roads, aspiring instead to remodel youth and, by extension, the future of humanity.
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